By BUDDY SHACKLETTE
The drivers, crew chiefs and car owners get their names in the papers and faces on television, but it's no secret that there are hundreds of people behind each NASCAR team.
There may be no bigger unsung hero -- or heroes -- than the ones who log thousands of miles before the drivers ever hit the track.
Aside from being sleep-deprived and maybe feeling unappreciated, they're also the ones who are, perhaps, one of the most integral members of the team. They are the transporter drivers.
"It's more important than just getting from point A to point B safely and representing Joe Gibbs Racing and Home Depot in a professional and safe manner when they're going down the road," said Greg Zipadelli, crew chief for Tony Stewart. "They take ownership of what's on the truck. They oversee all that gets switched out and they make sure they have the right parts and pieces for the cars we have on the trailer."
In year's past, a member of the at-site pit crew would often double as driver of the car hauler, turn wrenches on the car and change a tire or two over the weekend.
With the rigors and demands of NASCAR's current 36-race schedule -- which travels as far north as Loudon, N.H., as far west as California and as far south as Miami -- it's just not possible for one man to do that consistently.
"Mentally you are on the road and just the fatigue of dealing with traffic and dealing with other people out there . . . physically when you get back your body is to a point where it's worn out and you have to turn the truck around and have to go again," said Cindy Lewis, who drives the transporter of the No. 77 Dodge of Brendan Gaughan.
To make the job more manageable, some teams have two drivers to make the weekly swings from Point A to Point B. Lewis and her husband, Bill Lewis, team up to get Gaughan's Penske Racing South entry to the track and back to the shop each week.
"A lot of the teams now have permanent co-drivers and they come to different tracks, depending on how far away they are and help on race day and maybe drive the truck back," said John Pounds, who drives the transporter for the No. 22 Dodge of Scott Wimmer. "The primary truck driver will get a break."
Two-man transport driving teams are becoming more commonplace, mainly due to the distance between tracks.
In late June, teams must drive from Sonoma in Northern California back to the shop -- most of which are in North Carolina -- to swap road-course wear for superspeedway wear for the trek to Daytona the following week.
On July 25 in New Hampshire the teams began the longest stretch of the season -- 18 consecutive weeks, including this weekend in Watkins Glen, N.Y. -- without a break. It ends four months later on Nov. 21 at Homestead.
"I'm here to help. (Scott Crowell) does most of the stuff at the track, where I'm more at the shop working to get the truck turned around so that he can get a couple of days off," said Danny Heidtke, who shares transporter driver duties for the No. 20 Chevy with Crowell. "And then when we have a tough stretch of races, I'm available to help with the driving. You just can't run seven days a week anymore. The way the schedule is now, you need time off."
And the job won't get any easier next season for those in the Busch Series, Over a one-month span, the Busch Series will go from Daytona to Los Angeles, Los Angeles to Mexico City, Mexico to Las Vegas and Sin City to Atlanta.
"It's the difference between me still doing this job and not doing this job. It's more work than people can possibly conceive. It's a two-person position, and a year-round, full-time one at that," said Crowell. "Most people in this profession will tell you that their deal is pretty good, but. And more often than not the 'but' portion of it consists of, 'Man, I only got a half day off this week.' I couldn't do this without a second person."